Several residents of Berkeley homeless shelters and People’s Park received COVID-19 vaccines on Thursday, beginning the city’s rollout to groups that are prioritized in the state’s equity goals for vaccine distribution.
Unhoused residents were originally included in the state’s tier-based vaccination program in Tier 1B, but were removed from the tier, along with incarcerated individuals, after the state reorganized the system in response to complaints that the rollout was too slow.
Berkeley Public Health officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez requested authorization to vaccinate the group in mid-February and received approval from newly appointed state Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón soon after. Berkeley also got permission to vaccinate people in “special high-risk circumstances,” like the workers at Golden Gate Fields who were impacted by an outbreak of over 200 cases. (Starting on Monday, new groups will become eligible for the vaccine in Alameda County, including “all people experiencing homelessness who could transition into congregate settings at short notice.” See the full list.)
On a sunny Friday afternoon at People’s Park, a handful of residents who received their shot the previous evening told Berkeleyside that they felt relief after getting their single-dose Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine.
Fifty-three-year-old People’s Park Committee activist and resident Eric called his doctor to ask some questions about the relatively new Janssen vaccine prior to getting his dose. His doctor told him to go for it, and he trusted the advice.
“In my brain, because it’s one dose only, it’s like it will have real effects,” Eric said, describing the side effects of two doses hypothetically hitting all at once.
But, while talking to Berkeleyside, he jokingly asked a neighbor, “Did I even get it?” Eric didn’t experience any adverse reactions and shared the happy news of accompanying his elderly mother for her second dose shortly before he received his.
Neither of them will be rushing into any risky activities immediately due to their age, he said, but are grateful to have received the vaccine
“We survived until now, why run?” Eric said. “Let’s see what comes.”
LifeLong Medical oversaw the vaccine distribution at People’s Park Thursday while Berkeley Public Health gave out about 20 shots to staff and residents at city respite sites and the Harrison House, run by BOSS. The city has received 600 doses of the Janssen vaccine and is currently conducting trainings and determining the best way to distribute the vaccine, which will include providing it at the Golden Gate Fields mass vaccination site.
“That’s a start,” Lisa Warhuus, director of Berkeley health, housing and community services, said of the initial equity-based doses Thursday. “We know from previous other vaccination efforts that there’s a lot of distrust with the system and vaccinations. We’re aware that not everyone would want to be vaccinated.”
The city conducted polling at the shelters and respite sites prior to vaccinating folks on Thursday and determined about 20 people were interested in receiving the shot. In the weeks to come, Warhuus said the city is working on ramping up outreach and education efforts to share information about all three “excellent” and extremely effective vaccines.
“With this country’s history of racism in medical care in vulnerable communities …our task is…to continue to offer as much support as we can, instead of just being like, ‘We know better!'” — Lisa Warhuus
“Frankly, with this country’s history of racism in medical care in vulnerable communities … that impacts people’s willingness to trust the system and receive our vaccine,” Warhuus said. “Our task in all this is…to continue to offer as much support as we can, instead of just being like, ‘We know better!” Because we’ve done that, and hurt people in the past.”
While many were open or eager to receive their shot at People’s Park (if they hadn’t already gotten it), a few said they weren’t interested in the vaccine. Some said they hadn’t had the time or technology to do their own research on the vaccine, or hadn’t been given enough information to make the choice. Others had personal reasons.
“I have a philosophy that if it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it,” said 60-year-old Rome, a park resident who described being in overall good health. He said the public-health response to COVID-19 and the vaccine makes sense generally, but it doesn’t apply to him. “I believe that god protects me, and I also don’t trust the government.”
Others feel it’s a service to their neighbors and the only way to return to a sense of “normalcy” after the pandemic. Grady Peek, 38, received his Janssen shot on Thursday and said it’s also a way to make others more comfortable around him and open up possibilities in employment.
“It’s going to be a while until we trust each other again, until we’re around each other,” said Rosevelt “Rosy” Stephens, an artist who lives in senior housing but frequented the park for over 30 years. He’s recently started teaching art classes at the park every Thursday from 2-4 p.m. in an effort to reconnect neighbors and strangers, and said the vaccine is one of the only ways to return People’s Park — and Berkeley — to its vibrant pre-pandemic past.
“I feel like I’m doing something…to help the country get back to normal again. It was a relief, I felt joy, I felt safe and I felt more confident in the system.” — Rosevelt “Rosy” Stephens
Stephens is fully vaccinated now and had no reaction to his two shots.
“I feel like I’m doing something for the country as a patriotic citizen, to help the country get back to normal again,” Stephens said. “It was a relief, I felt joy, I felt safe and I felt more confident in the system.”
The city currently has vaccines scheduled for Dorothy Day House locations, Oregon Park and additional mobile units including return visits to vaccine more residents at People’s Park. There will also be planned visits to Berkeley residents who can’t leave their home.
Homeless residents who are not associated with shelters or known communities don’t have an easy way of requesting the vaccine yet, except through Berkeley’s general email line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warhuus said the city is working on creating a hub that’s easy to access without a computer or online information. The systems for registration available widely are not “friendly” to residents without internet access and more easy-access sites like one at the Ed Roberts Campus are planned, she said.
“We need to create that system [for homeless residents to request vaccines],” Warhuus said. “We’re building our muscle on this … but we’re still working out the kinks. We’re going to have to strengthen the knowledge and availability within our network.”